Milne-Thomson, Louis Melville

(1891-1974), applied mathematician

by Mary Croarken

© Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved

Thomson, Louis Melville Milne- (1891-1974), applied mathematician, was born on 1 May 1891 at 4 The Avenue, Ealing, London, the eldest son of Colonel Alexander Milne-Thomson, physician and surgeon (d. 1944), and Eva Mary, daughter of the Revd J. Milne. He was educated at Clifton College, Bristol (1906-9), and won a scholarship to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, to study mathematics; he gained first-class honours in the mathematical tripos part one in 1911, and graduated as a wrangler with distinction in 1913. On 12 September 1914 he married (Johanne) Gertrude, eldest daughter of Dr Karl Frommknecht. They had three daughters. In the same year he took up the post of assistant mathematics master at Winchester College, leaving in 1921 to go to the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, where he later became professor of mathematics. During this time he was made a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the Royal Astronomical Society, the Cambridge Philosophical Society, and, later, the Institute of Aerospace Sciences. He was made CBE in 1952.

Milne-Thomson's career was based on teaching, table making, and research into applied mathematics. In 1929 he published a table of square roots. He then began a joint project with L. J. Comrie, an already established table maker, and together they published Standard Four Figure Tables (1931), a book designed to be accessible to the non-specialist. His other great table-making project of the early 1930s was the calculation of Jacobian Elliptic Function Tables, published first in German (1931) and later in English (1950). Many of his publications of the 1930s (for example in the Journal of the London Mathematical Society, the Proceedings of the Cambridge Philosophical Society, and the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh) reflect his involvement with table making. In 1939-48 he served on the British Association for the Advancement of Science mathematical tables committee; he actively contributed to the work of this body and that of its successor at the Royal Society.

In 1933 Milne-Thomson published the first of several textbooks. The Calculus of Finite Differences (1933) was based on his own experience of making tables and, in its preface, he states that one motivation for writing it was the lack of other texts suitable for his students at Greenwich. The book went on to become one of the classic texts of student mathematics. However, by the mid-1930s his interests were moving away from tables and into other areas of mathematics related to his work at Greenwich teaching the Royal Corps of Naval Constructors. His books Theoretical Hydrodynamics (1938) and Theoretical Aerodynamics (1948) went through several editions right up until the mid-1960s.

After retiring from Greenwich in 1956 Milne-Thomson travelled widely, taking up visiting professorships at: Brown University, Rhode Island; the US Army Mathematics Research Center, University of Wisconsin (1958-60); University of Arizona (1961-70); University of Rome (1968); University of Queensland (1969); University of Calgary (1970); and University of Otago (1971). At Wisconsin he carried out research into the application of the complex variable to plane and antiplane elastic problems. The results of this work were published as technical reports for the US army and as two textbooks, Plane Elastic Systems (1960) and Anti-Plane Elastic Systems (1962). During his time at Wisconsin he also edited a Russian-English mathematical dictionary (1962); he had learned to read Russian in order to keep abreast of Russian developments in applied mathematics, and prepared this dictionary as a result--which reinforces the view that all his books were written with the intention of making mathematics accessible to the beginner or non-specialist. At Arizona, Milne-Thomson's leadership of a very active group of research students working on hydrodynamics resulted in the naming of a general type of integral equation after him.

In 1971 Milne-Thomson finally retired, to 2 Bullfinch Lane, Sevenoaks, Kent. He died at Sevenoaks Hospital on 21 August 1974.


private information (2004)
R. E. Wilson and H. A. Jackson, eds., Winchester College: a register for the years 1901 to 1946 (1956)
Sevenoakes News (28 Aug 1974)
The Times (24 Aug 1974)
'The BAASMTC now RSMTC', Mathematical Tables and Other Aids to Computation, 3 (1949), 333-40
b. cert.
d. cert.

photograph, 1956, Royal Naval College, Greenwich

Wealth at death  
£41,200: administration with will, 9 April 1975, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved


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